A Vision at the Bottom Line

Since the recession of 1980s, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street have been searching for ways of defining vision as a business tool. Exhorted by management consultants and productivity gurus, managers and business owners are now researching and implementing vision training to the tune of nearly $1.5 billion a year.

Whatever they call it and however they achieve it, a lot of organizations have one; or at least, they have a statement of some sort embellishing their lobbies and printed literature. Some even give employees laminated copies of these carefully worded, high-minded proverbs for mutual success. Usually, these find their way into the backs of desk drawers or begin useful second lives as bookmarks in the equally forgotten corporate policy manual.

What is the difference between a vision that inspires participation and one that retires it? First off, the words that end up in the vision statement itself are only the beginning. The process the organization goes through to hammer out its vision and the ways in which it demonstrates its commitment to those articulated values are really what makes the vision a viable tool and one that can carry a mission to fruition.

But what's the attraction and why do it if there are so many pitfalls? Stephen Covey, author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, comments that a company with an effective and well-planned vision becomes more efficient because managers don't have to be involved in as many decisions. "A centralized vision and mission allow a company to decentralize operations," he says. "When everyone is working from the same frame of reference, you don't need as much control."

Robert Haas, chairman and CEO of San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., explained, "We always talked about the 'hard stuff' and the 'soft stuff.' The soft stuff was the company's commitment to our work force. And the hard stuff was what really mattered: getting pants out the door.

"What we've learned is that the soft stuff and the hard stuff are becoming increasingly intertwined. A company's values -- what it stands for, what its people believe in -- are crucial to its competitive success. Indeed, values drive the business."

Stanford business professors, James Collins and Jerry Porras, make a more direct connection between vision and success: "Vision-driven companies perform better over time."

In 1993, Collins and Porras asked CEOs of Fortune 500 and Inc. 100 companies to identify organizations they thought were "visionary." The professors then "invested" one dollar into the resulting list of 20 companies whenever the firm was first listed (NYSE, after 1926). As a group, the 20 performed an astounding 55 times better than the average market.

Then they compared the same list of companies to other companies that started in the same industry at about the same time. The resulting pairings (IBM with Burroughs Corp., Motorola with Zenith, Disney with Columbia, et cetera) again clearly showed marked performance difference, a ratio of eight to one.

Collins and Porras uncovered two essential elements that distinguished the "visionary" companies with their "non-visionary" counterparts. One was that visionary companies tended to have clearly articulated core values. They also possessed an inherent mission, a reason for being that was always communicated and reinforced throughout all levels of the management and staff.

"You need both," says Collins. 'The combination of the two is the vision." He cites the example of Nike, the athletic shoe manufacturer. "Nike's core values center on the spirit of competition and the thrill of winning," comments Collins. "Its mission is a big, hairy, audacious goal that has led them to annihilate their competitor, Adidas, and now possibly Reebok."

Values and mission, Collins concludes, are like hand and glove. Without them, the vision is meaningless.